Could working near home be the new working from home?

Co working

The coronavirus pandemic has catapulted us into a nation of remote workers, with companies realising that the vast majority of teams don’t always need to be in the same place all the time to function effectively.

And while employees may have initially grumbled and found a new unfamiliar challenge grappling the difficulties of working from home – with distractions of children and pets, a loss of camaraderie, discomfort from hours spent working at a kitchen table, and a lack of differentiation between work life and home life – they are also reluctant to go back: only 34% of British office workers have returned to the office, according to a survey by Morgan Stanley, compared to 83% in France.

With TUC analysis putting average daily commutes at close to an hour in the UK – and almost an hour and a half in London – it should come as little surprise that staff are looking to eke this out for as long as they can. For many, the benefits of working from home, in terms of increased time spent on leisure, exercise and with the family, outweigh the disadvantages. But for the long term, a compromise needs to be found.

Research by Engaging Works found that almost two thirds of employees want a split between remote working and time spent in the office following the pandemic. While it’s probable that the workplace of the future will involve increased flexibility in terms of working hours and location, one thing that is unlikely to change is the need for professional working environments and for teams to meet up at least occasionally. Being alone can provide a good environment for tasks such as writing reports and doing research, but for collaboration, brainstorming and problem solving, the office wins every time.

With employees likely only to be coming into offices for part of the week and a growing preference for less dense locations and those that can be reached without taking public transport, what businesses look for in a workplace is shifting.

The challenge is that what companies now want is a rarity. A rapid transformation in the concept of what makes a desirable workplace has seen non-city-centre locations rise in popularity: flexible workspace provider BizSpace, which operates centres principally in out-of-town locations, recently reported 26% more enquiries than its pre-lockdown average, highlighting a surge in demand for local working. But firms don’t want to compromise on quality and too many out-of-city-centre buildings fail to deliver the kind of space modern businesses want.

After all, an office is a key tool for attracting talent. With more people working from home for more of the time, an office that provides a strong sense of brand identity and that makes people want to leave their homes and come into work has never been so important. Creating a wow-factor space in a non-city-centre location is likely to be more cost effective, but there are fewer new, design-focused, ready-to-move-into spaces in these areas, because there simply wasn’t as much demand for them previously.

Access to green space is also rising up the agenda. The pandemic has made us all more attuned to the wellness advantages of spending time outside. A UK study has shown that working in an environment with greenery and natural elements improves productivity by 15%, while a report by The University of Michigan found that having the option of going outside, even in the cold, improved memory and attention and that in workplaces designed with nature in mind, employees took less time off sick.

At Alconbury Weald, our tenants tell us it’s the combination of green space with the kind of offices and quality of amenities – including a gym and café – you’d find in a city centre that attracts them to work here. The location, at the meeting point of the A1, A14 and A141, and within easy reach of Huntingdon rail station, has also proved popular as people have started to return to work following lockdown. Spaces like this, that bring first-rate office space together with an environment meaning workers can go for a run, cycle ride or picnic on their lunch break, have demonstrated their resilience and are only likely to prove more popular as companies further embrace the power of technology to make work more flexible.

Research by the Office of National Statistics found that the number of Londoners leaving the city has reached a 10-year high. Significant reasons for this increase are that businesses are drawing talented professionals out with attractive job offers in attractive settings and that flexible working means they can work in a London job while living in a location that offers them a better quality of life at a lower cost.

There was a time when having a lucrative job generally meant travelling into a city centre each day. But factors such as technology, sustainability and, most recently, health and wellbeing, mean that attitudes have started to change. As people realise they can work from anywhere – and employers realise that offering flexibility gives them access to a broader, nationwide talent pool – high-quality offices within local communities could quickly become the future for post-pandemic working, whether as co-working hubs where people can work locally in a professional environment, or as places where companies can create a wow-factor base to bring together remote teams to collaborate and be creative.

Joe Dawson is Senior Development Manager at Urban&Civic, a master developer which is currently creating new mixed-use communities at Alconbury Weald in Huntingdonshire and Wintringham in St Neots.